Egypt’s Copts can’t rely on new pope to secure their rights

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Egypt’s Copts can’t rely on new pope to secure their rights


A conversation with Youssef Sidhom
Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church found its 118th pope on Sunday. During a televised mass rich in tradition and drama at Cairo’s St. Mark Cathedral, the fingers of a blindfolded boy reached into a crystal chalice, wrapped around one of three transparent spheres, and pulled it out.

The small, clear globe was opened, revealing the name of Bishop Anba Tawadros, one of three finalists in the church’s search for the successor to Pope Shenouda III, who died in March after a 40-year reign.

When he takes the throne Nov. 18, Bishop Tawadros will move from oversight of a bishopric in the Nile delta northwest of Cairo to the head of the Coptic Church, whose estimated 10 million members comprise the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East.

Educated in Egypt and Britain, and a manager of a pharmaceutical company before entering monkhood, Tawadros, 60, will fill a leadership vacuum that opened at a precarious moment for Egypt’s Christians. Long living at the margins of the country’s overwhelmingly Islamic society, Christians have been especially pressured since the January 2011 revolution that deposed President Hosni Mubarak. The rise of Islamic representation in the government, an increase in anti-Christian violence, and the ongoing debate over a new Egyptian constitution have intensified the pressure on Christians to secure a place for themselves in the post-revolution Egyptian society.

To learn more about Bishop Tawadros and what his selection means for Egypt’s Christians, Open Doors News spoke at length Sunday with Youssef Sidhom, chairman of Watani, a news website and weekly newspaper published in Cairo that circulates to more than 50,000 Egyptians, most of them Copts. Sidhom was a member of a committee of lay Copts who helped the church assemble its early list of potential papal candidates. He is a frequent editorialist on Coptic issues.

What follows is an edited transcript of Sidhom’s comments to Open Doors News. The conversation began with his description of the ceremony at St. Mark Cathedral:

Youssef SidhomSidhom: It was a regular mass, and it extended around a couple of hours. And then, amid the excitement of everybody, the acting patriarch got the transparent jar, put it on a table in front of all the attendees, and said Now I will invite the little boy to come. The little boy stepped beside him, and he opened the seal of the jar, and he blindfolded the boy, and he prayed, and then he asked the boy to pick one of the transparent spheres holding a name of the three, and then while everybody was gasping for breath out of excitement, he opened it and he unfolded the paper and there it revealed the name of the second runner-up Bishop Tawadros. And everybody cheered. And that was it.

. . . I’m really proud and honored that it came out this way. The media did a good job because they expressed extreme care to viewers, to all Egyptians and to worldwide.

Open Doors News: Was this a moment that many Christians across Egypt really tuned into? Or was this a background event to the day?

Sidhom: No. I suppose that not only the Copts but a good portion of Muslims sat to watch what’s taking place and they were excited also, because the feedback that came by phone calls and by email and by SMS messages in all the programs on TV stations covering the event came from both Christians and Muslims, from both public figures and laymen. It revealed that a good part of Egyptians were knowing what’s taking place and were excited and were congratulating the church for an extremely decent and sacred organization of the whole process, which ended up in seeking the last say from heaven today.

OD News: What sort of expectations, both in regards to matters of faith and to the Coptic place in Egyptian society, will be placed on Bishop Tawadros?

Sidhom: This is the transitional period which Egypt is passing through, and they had to make sure the coming pope will be wise enough to tackle all these aspects, whether inside Egypt or outside Egypt.

I sense, very much, great respect and appreciation among Christians and among Muslims for the pope, and lots of things are expected of him. And this is what I was, all day, commenting about [on television during coverage of the selection of the new pope]. Because everybody asks what are the responsibilities put in front of the pope, and what are the challenges in the new atmosphere which Egypt is passing through; and with the rise of political Islam, what is he keen to do?

In that regard, I say there are several levels. The first is the church as an institution.

We look forward that the pope, with his scientific mind, with [his] experience, is expected to change the whole manner of administration in the church. The church, for centuries, and until Pope Shenouda, relied mainly in its administration upon its leadership, upon the sole figure of the pope.

Of course, the pope has had his secretarial office, had his aide, but there were no professionals to administer the departments, to lead, and to draw policies in the church as an institution, especially when Pope Shenouda left the church with considerable expansion in all the world.

[T]he church needs [adequate] administration to take care of all of this and, of course, the policy of decentralization. I think Pope Tawadros is the best of the three to adopt such an approach to reform the administration of the church.

(The second level of challenges, Sidhom said, concerns the relationship between the church and its members, especially the “very sensitive” debate over the possibility of expanding the legal grounds for divorce. Within the church, he said, the tension is between Copts who favor liberalizing divorce law and those, including Bishop Tawadros, who adhere to a more stringent, Scripture-defined justification for divorce.)

Sidhom: This moves to another very important legislation which the pope has to continue fighting for with the state. And when I say “fighting for,” I don’t mean violence and I don’t mean confrontation. . . . [I]t is a long-awaited piece of legislation [concerning] building and maintaining churches. Because legislation governing building and maintaining churches makes the procedure of getting a building permit for building or maintaining an existing church or building a new church lengthy and tough, and in part, humiliating for the Christians. So this is a church issue which the pope has to continue asking the state to [address].

The last level of responsibilities, and this is creating a good deal of opinions and discussions among the Christians, among the Muslims, among the media, and in the political arena, which is: What will be the level of representation that the pope will take in his hands representing Christians in front of the state? Because during [reign of] the late pope Shenouda, there was a very intimate relation connecting Pope Shenouda with our [former] president, Mr. Mubarak. And that intimate relation enabled Pope Shenouda, with acceptance of the president, to speak for the Copts in every single political matter related to the Copts.

. . . [W]hereas most of the Copts [approved of] this situation, the elite and the [politically active] Copts . . . regarded that as a sick situation. Because, politically, the head of the church can’t speak for the Copts, except if we think the Copts are a separate, sectarian part of the Egyptians, which is something that is not true and is not accepted. So, if the Copts are suffering from inequalities [in] their citizenship rights, they should take this [opportunity] and join the political arena and deal with these things with their fellow Muslims, and be supported by their fellow Muslims, and fight for these rights in front of the state.

But to put their citizenship rights in the hands of their religious leaders in order to present something in front of the state? First of all, this harms their citizenship, and secondly, our Copt experience in that regard did not yield any considerable results that we can rely upon. It was left to what favors the president may give the Copts from time to time, but the president never reformed legislation or set legal principles achieving [equal rights] for the Copts.

Luckily enough, after the January revolution, the political arena has been opened, and several liberal parties were introduced where the Copts stepped into and joined and participated. The church and Bishop Tawadros himself indicated that this is a considerable change that the church encourages, and that the church, rather than representing the Copts in front of the state, will continue encouraging its congregations to step by themselves into the political arena and take things in their own hands.

OD News: What do you think the new pope will do to provide Copts the encouragement they need to take things in their own hands?

Sidhom: Well, the church after the revolution has already encouraged Copts to participate in all levels of elections. . . . Despite the fact that there are some clergy joining the steering constitutional committee writing our new constitution, they are there representing the church as an institution, but not representing the Copts, because beside them, in the steering committee, there are laymen Copts. But the most significant thing that the pope will do in order to encourage his congregation to take things in their own hands will be simply to stop taking things in his hands.

OD News: What are some of the ways that the millions of lay Copts judge to be the proper role of the pope in advocating the rights of Christians in Egypt? Which parts of the Coptic population consider him the proper person to do this work, and which parts consider him to be more properly concerned with internal matters of the Church?

Sidhom: Normally, the middle and high income groups of the Copts, who are in better social and economic situation, will be favoring themselves participating rather than the pope representing them. Of course, if we go down to the lower income groups, and the less educated Copts, they will be more helpless and favoring relying upon the pope to do their homework for them.

Also there is another very important factor, and this applies to any income group: The portion of the Copts which does not helpfully intermix with Muslims in daily life will always feel isolated and helpless and will want the church to do their homework. But the portion of the Copts who integrate helpfully with Muslims and deal with them in daily life, and again I repeat this does not follow segregation socially or economically, will be encouraged and confident that they can do themselves this homework and not rely upon the church.

OD News: How quickly, if at all, do you expect the new pope will make it known publicly the Coptic view of Islamic influence in the creation of the news Egyptian constitution?

Sidhom: That has already been expressed, not by the pope himself, but when I referred to the clergy . . . joining the membership of the steering committee writing the constitution, let me tell you that one of the most enthusiastic members in that regard, doing a great job, and gaining the respect of everybody in the committee was [a bishop] who at the same time was heading the electoral committee of the pope, and talked to the press a lot during that month. So the [work] of the church [members] and their views and opinions in the steering committee writing the constitution is not far from the pope himself, and I expect if the issue is raised in the coming weeks in front of the pope, he will be able to comment reflecting his views upon this issue.

OD News: Setting aside any role the pope might have, how will ordinary Egyptian Copts advocate for their rights as citizens of Egypt? Where will that leadership come from?

Sidhom: It can’t be a Coptic leadership [because] this, again, is sectarian. The near, natural presence among their Muslim counterparts in all levels of the political arena, in political parties, in syndicates, in human rights organizations, in NGOs, they have to be there, and there they will always find fellow Muslim citizens who would like very much to support them . . . . [T]his is how citizenship, real citizenship, can be served.

OD News: Are there any natural elements of the Coptic population who are ready to step into these roles? Or is this something that Copts from wide variety of backgrounds will get involved with?

Sidhom: This is something that will take time, but we are not in square one. Because since the referendum of March 2011, the Copts were quite enthusiastic to get out and participate and it is moving onward, slowly but surely. It will take time, but it is already on the move.

OD News: Is this a youth movement? Or does this involve a wider spectrum of Copts across Egypt?

Sidhom: It is a wider spectrum. I’m very happy and proud that is always motivated by the youth.
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